The name Nikolai Pavlovich Simonyak is closely connected with the Red Army's successes in the Battle of Leningrad. In the winter of 1943, when the blockade was punctured, his 136th Rifle Division was fighting in the main assault, and its actions brought greatest success to the Red Army on January 12th. Here is where N.P. Simonyak earned the nickname "General Breakthrough".
Before the Breakthrough
Way back during the defense of the Hanko peninsula in 1941, Simonyak thoroughly built up a functional staff, a rare occurrence among Red Army commanders in the early war. This was noticeable in how the journals of the 8th Independent Rifle Brigade and then division which Nikolai Pavlovich commanded. Even in the battles of August-September of 1942 that ended poorly for the Red Army, his division, fighting in the 55th Army, probably performed better than any Soviet unit at Leningrad.
In November of 1942, Simonyak's 136th division was taken out of the 55th Army to the front reserve. The troops were busy with training. Everyone understood that a new breakthrough attempt was coming, and there was a lot to do before it could be successful.
One of the greatest difficulties for the Leningrad Front was that its forces had to cross the Neva in order to engage the Germans. It had to be done in such a way that the captured foothold wouldn't end up as another blood-soaked dead end.
General Simonyak and his 136th division had a difficult objective: cross the frozen Neva, which was 600 m wide in their sector. It was incredibly important to prepare the infantry for the crossing in advance. The organization of the crossing would determine success in battle. The preparations were controlled by the commander of the Leningrad Front, Lieutenant-General L.A. Govorov. Stavka representative K. Voroshilov visited Simonyak's division at least twice in November and December of 1942. Failures in training could spell grave consequences for the division's commanders.
Difficult in Training, Easy in Battle
Simonyak tirelessly worked to prepare his troops for their task. He carefully put into practice the saying that in war, sweat will save on blood. He demanded that soldiers be able to quickly cover the open space on the river. The commander had to know the enemy's front line of defense precisely. This knowledge allowed him to correctly determine the amount of resources required for the division.
Simonyak also put great effort into bringing another idea to life, one that, in his opinion, would bring success to his troops. It included maximum use of concentrated direct fire from the right shore of the Neva. To do this, intelligence about the enemy shore had to be carefully collected. Artillery had to support the infantry with a rolling barrage, a moving wall of explosions in front of the troops. This is an effective tactic, but one that required precision from artillery and ability to keep up from infantry. Any mistake could be deadly, as it doesn't matter whose shell the shrapnel that's flying at you came from. Soldiers practiced following a rolling barrage before the start of Operation Spark.
A panorama of the German shore of the Neva.
Simonyak and his staff didn't stop there. Infantry units began preparing assault teams who would clear the path for the rest of the infantry. The soldiers were preparing for not only going on the ice first, but doing so before the start of the artillery barrage. Many things depended on the speed, experience, and understanding of their own role by these teams. Even the most powerful and well aimed barrage can't eliminate all enemy strongholds, and these teams had to finish what the artillery started.
Simonyak understood that his commanders will demand precise information about his actions. Even though the 136th division's staff was working flawlessly, the commander decided to organize an observation point right on the riverbank. The general intended to watch the actions of his men personally, and the troops were encouraged by the fact that their commander was at the front lines with them.
N.P. Simonyak was given significant resources for the battle: over 400 guns and mortars, as well as light tanks of the 61st Tank Brigade.
Let us examine the enemy that the 136th Rifle Division was supposed to crush. Two battalions (out of three) of the 401st Grenadier Regiment of the 170th Infantry Division were defending there. The regiment, strongest in its division, counted 1100 men. Even though it was under authorized strength, the amount of firepower and manpower was more than enough to defend its sector, and a lot more than the Red Army units opposite of them had. German artillery was a serious problem for the attackers. If it could open fire during the river crossing, the operation would fail.
The operation to break through the blockade, codenamed Spark, began on January 12th, 1943. It was time for Simonyak and his division to test the results of their thorough preparations.
There is a small inconsistency between the actual actions of the troops and the division's documents. Operation Spark is always associated with powerful artillery fire. Simonyak added infantry fire to this. 20 minutes before the barrage ended, mounted machineguns fired four belts worth of ammunition towards the German shore. At the same time, the soldiers were already supposed to be on the ice. Documents say that everything went according to plan. That's the contradiction. Did it have an impact on the events that unfolded? Likely not. It's known that the troops were greatly encouraged, going into battle to the sound of L'Internationale, the anthem of the Soviet Union at the time.
How did Simonyak's attack look through German eyes? Initially, the HQ of the 170th Infantry Division reported nothing about the fate of its 401st regiment, the first to come under attack. Not a single radio message was sent in the morning after Soviet artillery opened fire. Soviet guns dealt significant damage not only to units of the regiment that were on the front lines, but to its reserves too. The German command structure was disorganized, all efforts to establish screening fire went to waste. German artillery almost didn't fire at the Neva.
The result of the battle was resounding success for the 136th Rifle Division. Its soldiers captured a 3 km wide foothold on the left shore of the Neva. Considering that the unit to the right of Simonyak managed to grab onto land as well, the Red Army achieved the impossible. Its troops crossed over half a kilometer of open ground, climbed the steep left bank, and broke through the enemy's front line of defense.
As mentioned above, N.P. Simonyak's division ensured success. Looking at the operation overall, his soldiers played a key role. The foothold they captured was widened. Simonyak's men advanced to join up with the Volkhov Front. Meanwhile, other units poured into the gap they made in the enemy's ranks. The 136th Rifle Division made it further than anyone else and managed to join up with the Volkhovites. It happened on January 18th, 1943, at Worker's Village #5, and became one of the most notable Red Army successes in the North-Western direction. This successful conclusion of Operation Spark was guaranteed by Simonyak's success on January 12th. This was the expected outcome to all the thorough training, skillful actions, and correct approach of the 136th division's commanders. Many of those serving under "General Breakthrough" had successful military careers, and Nikolai Pavlovich himself climbed the chain of command.
Another interesting story is connected with the 136th Rifle Division. It soon became the 63rd Guards, and many commanders and soldiers received distinctions. The Military Council of the Leningrad Front sent a congratulatory telegram to the division HQ that read "Elements of your division, righting in fierce battles to penetrate the enemy blockade of Leningrad, advancing in the front lines of the 67th Army, crossing the Neva river, broke through the enemy's fortified positions... Elements of your division were the first to unite with the Volkhov Front on January 18th, playing the key role in the battles for Leningrad."
In reality, Simonyak's division wasn't the first unit in the Leningrad Front to join up with the Volkohov Front, but that doesn't diminish its incredible contributions. Interestingly enough, the telegram's text was edited, and military council member A.A. Zhdanov changed the first few lines. They sounded much more congratulatory in the original: "Elements of your division... played the key, decisive role in the battles for Leningrad." It's almost as though Zhdanov was sorry for Simonyak's humility.
Nikolai Pavlovich and his division continued to fight in the 55th Army. It was given the objective to advance to Krasniy Bor and fight the Spanish units of the German army. The Kransiy Bor operation was a failure for the Red Army, but not for Simonyak, whose guardsmen carried out their mission and defeated the Spaniards at Krasniy Bor.